So there has been a great of talk about robotics and AI, and how they are going to change the world.
Usually followed by stories of how we are all going to die. In poverty.
However, for me, robotics offer one of the most exciting opportunities in human history.
The opportunity for robots to take over most menial tasks, and do them more efficiently, more accurately and with less waste. It could allow a population of 9 million to live within the means of the planet, and frees up humanity to move away from being slaves to menial jobs. Another way of looking at this is that robotics will be taking away millions of jobs from people who can’t afford to lose them.
However, in many industries, the introduction of robots is just the next step in a long history of mechanisation and automation. Warehouse logistics and mining are two examples where the evolution of efficient practices have replaced menial repetitive jobs with robotic systems, like Waitrose’s warehouse designed purely for robotic workers. In the US, coal Mining has lost three quarters of its workforce over the last 30 years, but output has roughly stayed the same (although on a downward trend).
Farming is a core market for this. It takes a large amount of menial labour at intervals throughout the year. In the UK, this labour cannot be paid at anything other than minimum rates available, or the food produced will simply be too expensive. Farms are run by a small group of ‘management’ - typically a farmer or farm manager and an agronomist. Pretty much every other job in the system could be replaced with little or no impact on fulltime jobs in the rural economy.
At Small Robot Company, we are working on a service to replace menial jobs on a farm with autonomous robots. We have designed a system we call Farming as a Service, using three robot types we call Tom Dick and Harry, and supported by an AI-driven operating system called FaaS-OS. It has the potential to radically improve yields and reduce waste and energy through being precise and efficient.
However, we understand that there is the risk of farm jobs being lost. This is why our founding ethos is that we are building a robotic service as part of the rural economy, not imposing our service on it. For this reason we are considering how to support the diversification of the rural community. We are helping rural communities, lead by innovative farmers, to take advantage of the time freed up through using FaaS to create new businesses, and to encourage the development of new skills in the rural workforce.
Our ‘Bread not Wheat’ initiative, that we call 'Project Gingham', is focused on allowing farmers and the local community to move from selling a low value primary produce to start using that produce to make higher value products. Inspired by the Food and Farming Awards, we aim to support a network of farm businesses create brands to sell to customers, so creating more value and jobs in the rural community.
There are also a range of fears of the effect that robots could have on our community. Not least that the focus of development of the artificial intelligence that underpins autonomous robotics is in the US and China. And the main exponents of these systems are hungry for the data produced, and they use it to improve their products. As Putin recently said, this runs the risk of creating a widening have/have not divide where the companies and countries with the most popular AI systems will exponentially benefit from a large customer base.
These fears are justified. The power of AI is focused in a very few hands. The complexity of doing new things in this space, and the availability of ‘big name’ AI systems mean that anyone looking to take advantage of neural nets for machine learning or NLP will end up using one of the available AI APIs, and feeding the ecosystems of one of the big US or Chinese players.
We believe that this needs to be tempered with a more human-first perspective. We take our inspiration from the House of Beautiful Business movement, founded by Small Robot friend and Ted Talker Tim Lebrecht. One of the main tenets of his movement is how we can use technology cleverly, to produce a world we want to live in, rather than unfettered technology accentuating the inequalities of now. Exponents of this, such as the founder of MLove, Harald Neidhart and Canay Atalay and Rudy DeWaele of Human Works, are exploring how the best of companies can make technology fit society, and support its evolution. An exciting output of this is the Copenhagen Letter, a statement of intent to use https://copenhagenletter.org/ It outlines a model that focuses on a human-shaped future in the sea of technology. It is something Small Robot Company believes is also financially prudent. Given the choice, people will buy things that make their life better. A human(ity) centred design ethos can only end up delivering these products and services.
To actively support this, we are creating a Robotics for Farming Traineeship, which aims to take rural youth not going to university, and give them a course that explores all sides of robotics and AI, and how it applies to farming. This 8 week course is being developed in conjunction with the CEMAST technical college in Fareham Hampshire, with the aim to provide disenfranchised teenagers with a route into robotics, computer science, product design and the future of farming.